Most of us, if not all, at some time have gone through a 'dark night of the soul'. Some slip back into this all too often. Such a state can arrive with an unexpected disaster, an accident or illness, a change in life circumstances, or it can just seem to hang about as part of our personality. So, what is it that gives life meaning and purpose, and how can this state be recovered when lost?
As a quick aside, loss of purpose is significant because it brings on emotional malaise, dissatisfaction, disengagement, depression, immune suppression, and has even been linked directly to an increased likelihood of death.
A typical approach to rebuilding purpose involves meaningful work (activity) as a pathway. Why? Because we all want to be appreciated and to feel that what we do matters. I address this in more detail in my book. However, here in this short journey we have the opportunity to look at an aspect of building meaning and purpose that is often overlooked.
How do you view 'self'? By this I mean that sense of individuality; the observer aspect of your mind. Your answer is important because it affects how you approach purpose and meaning.
First, there is the self that localises, tied to body in the here and now; this is self-reflective, organic, hedonistic, chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Dissatisfaction in life, lack of purpose and lack of drive appear principally to be found associated with this view, which promotes the importance of investigating self and gaining pleasure. In this state of mind, even if a source of pleasure lasts, which is rare, we adjust to it like an addict, and dissatisfaction rises up again quite quickly. By contrast, there are other ways of seeing self that seem to be a gateway to building or rebuilding a more long-lasting and satisfying sense of purpose and meaning.
One option is an absence of self, often experienced as being in 'the flow'. We have all felt this at some stage. Engrossed in an activity, the observer aspect disappears. In this state time seems to fly by and we feel satisfied, even ecstatic. The key here is being fully engaged in a task.
This state of flow, as explained by the creator of the term, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his publication, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, arises as we work on improving skill and constantly bringing new challenge to this skill. This strategy promotes the task and moves mind and body away from apathy and toward satisfaction, or even ecstasy. Terms such as 'in the zone' or 'in the pipe' also refer to this same state.
Any physical task can get us here. It could be running, swimming, or a different kind of athletic pursuit. And internally produced opioids (endorphins) add to the feel-good experience. But there are many activities in which we can lose our self, such as craft, gaming, writing, cooking, gardening, or even cleaning the house. It is all about doing something all-engaging, in which we hold or can develop a level of skill that we value. This triggers a shift in brain chemistry that refocuses attention and gives us a sense of rewarding empowerment. Here, getting lost in an activity reengages purpose.
Finally, there is nonlocal self; a state that involves awareness of the observer aspect of self but where boundaries expand beyond the local environment of individuality. This provides a larger-than-life aspect to consciousness, which can be experienced as a merging or a universal Mind.
Meditation is one pathway, but this state can come through many situations that move the focus away from self-absorption and into something greater than the individual, such as walking through a forest, along a beach, or even watching a meteor shower in a star-filled sky.
Jeffrey A. Martin, author of The God Formula: A simple scientifically proven blueprint that has transformed millions of lives, notes that those who experience this third state repeatedly, or for a long duration, report a greater sense of purpose and happiness. He uses the term, Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience, although it encompasses the same characteristics.
This expanded state of awareness changes approach to belief, which becomes plastic rather than rigid (more accepting of differences), focuses on harmony in life, and increases a sense of custodianship as part of the value system. Importantly, there is a deeper sense of meaning in these people's lives, and they no longer feeling unsatisfied.
So, in summary, what gives life meaning and purpose? These qualities appear to be most affected by our value system and sense of reward, but they are also deeply connected to how we view and experience sense of self.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb